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Easing Elementary, Middle School Testing Comes With Caveat

For parents and educators who want less classroom time spent on state exams, hopes rest on recently passed legislation, but it comes with a challenge: Texas likely must first obtain waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Bayless Elementary teacher Holly Guillmen identifies and explains the use of the contents of the Waterwise home water conservation kit provided to students by the High Plains Underground Water District in Lubbock, Texas, Oct. 17, 2012.

Despite sharply reducing state testing requirements for Texas high school students, the 83rd Legislature brought only conditional relief from high-stakes exams for students in lower grades, who take a total of 17 state tests before going to high school.

For parents and educators who want less time spent on state exams in elementary and middle school classrooms, hopes are pinned on the new legislation, but with a big caveat: it is likely that Texas must first obtain a No Child Left Behind Act waiver from the federal Department of Education.

The act requires states to test public school students in grades three through eight annually in reading and math, and at least once in science in both elementary and middle school. At the state level, Texas mandates additional exams in social studies and writing.

If the waiver were granted, the state law passed this year, House Bill 866, written by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, would allow students who excel on state reading and math exams in the third and fifth grades to skip exams in those subjects in the fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested on math in the third and fifth grades; on reading in the third, fifth and eighth grades; on writing and science in the fifth and eighth grades; and on social studies in the eighth grade.

“We are saying that we want to not have to test children repeatedly in those even-numbered grades, because basically we are wasting their time,” Huberty said. Texas Education Agency data indicated that students who scored above a certain threshold on tests one year had a 97 percent likelihood of doing so the following year, he said.

Kathi Thomas, a parent who followed education issues during the legislative session, said she was skeptical of how much the proposal would alleviate testing-related burdens.

“These few kids that would be able to get out of taking the test, they will still get all of the wasted time prepping,” said Thomas, whose daughter attends middle school in the Dripping Springs Independent School District. “And on the day that they don’t take the test, they are going to be warehoused in a library, and they still won’t getting any learning out of it.”

This month, the state education agency sent a letter to the U.S. Education Department seeking to clarify whether Texas needed a waiver to enact the law. There is no timetable for waiver request decisions. But HB 866 requires its provisions to take effect no later than Sept. 1, 2015.

Like many states, Texas has also applied for a separate, general waiver of the No Child Left Behind Act, whose reauthorization is currently being considered in Congress. A decision on that request, which would not affect testing requirements, is expected soon.

If the provisions of Huberty’s bill are allowed to proceed, there could be another logistical hurdle. The education agency would have to determine how, if some students were exempted from state testing, those students’ performance would be used to judge schools for accountability purposes. A spokeswoman for the agency said in an email that it was waiting to see whether the waiver would be approved before tackling those details.

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